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Jay Phelps dances with Rosie McDaniel on Saturday during the Special Needs Prom at 360's Main Event Center in Twin Falls.

Special needs prom provides a night of happily ever afters

TWIN FALLS — Gracie Christensen didn’t wait to get past the front doors to start dancing.

She’s good at it too. She dances freely, not hindered by any fears of looking silly. When she dances it can only be described as unadulterated fun.

It’s one of her three favorite things to do: she sings, blows bubbles and dances. Right now, she is showing the world that, yes, she loves to dance.

Warm string lights, laughs and pop music filled the 360 Event Center as it was transformed Saturday into a place where happily ever afters seemed obtainable for a few hours.

Attendees at the all-ages special needs prom wore their finest dresses and sharpest suits as they bounced from tables where their friends and families sat, posed for photos and grabbed concessions. But it was on the dance floor where everyone showed they were taking in the night.

Some were taking it slow. Emma Goemmer and Jesse Carpenter were in a near dance together. Despite the high energy song playing, they stayed in their own world.

“The prom has been fun,” Carpenter said. “It’s more fun since I started dancing with her.”

Just like every other prom, there were wallflowers. The few who prefer to observe or chat. Sometimes it just takes a while to work up the courage to dance. Leona King helped her son, Hunter King, ease into the dance. The lights, the sound can all be overwhelming. Hunter was just excited at the prospect of the cupcake that he got to eat while spending time with his mom.

Some family members teared up just seeing the prom. Ame Spriggs cried when she saw her son Aiden Linch at the dance. She cried when she saw a family friend dancing. She prepared herself to cry a few more times before the night would end.

“There’s not a whole lot in Twin for special needs kids,” Spriggs said. “I hope this happens again. They deserve this.”

The event was the result of Twin Falls High School senior Dakota Horton’s senior project. The senior project is a high school graduation requirement that has students contribute to the community, academic challenge or pursue their future career. The projects must include at least 40 hours of hands-on work. Horton said that she has put over 100 hours into fundraising for this prom.

“The special needs community is widespread without many things to do,” Horton said.

J.D. Davis, Horton’s adviser, overlooks the senior project and gave guidance.

He said that Horton was focused on her project and has been working on it since the start of the school year.

“This is one of the coolest projects a student has tackled in a while,” Davis said. “This is a project near and dear to her heart.”

Horton has three siblings with special needs. Her parents, Jessica and Jeff Horton, said that the lack of events for their children is hard to navigate. The parents, with tears in their eyes, say they are astonished that their daughter put this event on.

“We’re hoping that this continues,” Jessica said. “The turnout is so much bigger than we expected and this is only its first year.”

Back on the dance floor, Christensen was blowing bubbles. Each bubble she blew seemed to capture and hold reflections from the lights surrounding the dance floor. She was eager to share her bubbles with any dancer near her.

“Try not to blow them in anyone’s face,” her father, Kirk Christensen, said.

She smiled at her dad and assured him that she wasn’t doing that. He waved it off and the two danced the night away.

“So much of the time these individuals are left out,” Kirk Christensen said. “To open things up to them, it means the world.”

PHOTOS: Special Needs Prom


Cheryl Overmon dances with her husband, Jay Overmon, on Saturday during the Special Needs Prom at 360's Main Event Center in Twin Falls.

As clock ticks, new hurdle emerges in border security talks

WASHINGTON — Bargainers clashed Sunday over whether to limit the number of migrants authorities can detain, tossing a new hurdle before negotiators hoping to strike a border security compromise for Congress to pass this coming week. The White House wouldn’t rule out a renewed partial government shutdown if an agreement isn’t reached.

With the Friday deadline approaching, the two sides remained separated by hundreds of millions of dollars over how much to spend to construct President Donald Trump’s promised border wall. But rising to the fore was a related dispute over curbing Customs and Immigration Enforcement, or ICE, the federal agency that Republicans see as an emblem of tough immigration policies and Democrats accuse of often going too far.

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, in appearances on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and “Fox News Sunday,” said “you absolutely cannot” eliminate the possibility of another shutdown if a deal is not reached over the wall and other border matters. The White House had asked for $5.7 billion, a figure rejected by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, and the mood among bargainers has soured, according to people familiar with the negotiations not authorized to speak publicly about private talks.

“You cannot take a shutdown off the table, and you cannot take $5.7 (billion) off the table,” Mulvaney told NBC, “but if you end up someplace in the middle, yeah, then what you probably see is the president say, ‘Yeah, OK, and I’ll go find the money someplace else.’”

A congressional deal seemed to stall even after Mulvaney convened a bipartisan group of lawmakers at Camp David, the presidential retreat in northern Maryland. While the two sides seemed close to clinching a deal late last week, significant gaps remain and momentum appears to have slowed. Though congressional Democratic aides asserted that the dispute had caused the talks to break off, it was initially unclear how damaging the rift was. Both sides are eager to resolve the long-running battle and avert a fresh closure of dozens of federal agencies that would begin next weekend if Congress doesn’t act by Friday.

“I think talks are stalled right now,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Sunday on “Fox News Sunday.” “I’m not confident we’re going to get there.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who appeared on the same program, agreed: “We are not to the point where we can announce a deal.”

But Mulvaney did signal that the White House would prefer not to have a repeat of the last shutdown, which stretched more than a month, left more than 800,000 government workers without paychecks, forced a postponement of the State of the Union address and sent Trump’s poll numbers tumbling. As support in his own party began to splinter, Trump surrendered after the shutdown hit 35 days without getting money for the wall.

This time, Mulvaney signaled that the White House may be willing to take whatever congressional money comes — even if less than Trump’s goal — and then supplement that with other government funds.

“The president is going to build the wall. That’s our attitude at this point,” Mulvaney said on Fox. “We’ll take as much money as you can give us, and we’ll go find the money somewhere else, legally, and build that wall on the southern border, with or without Congress.”

The president’s supporters have suggested that Trump could use executive powers to divert money from the federal budget for wall construction, though it was unclear if he would face challenges in Congress or the courts. One provision of the law lets the Defense Department provide support for counterdrug activities.

But declaring a national emergency remained an option, Mulvaney said, even though many in the administration have cooled on the prospect. A number of powerful Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have also warned against the move, believing it usurps power from Congress and could set a precedent for a future Democratic president to declare an emergency for a liberal political cause.

The fight over ICE detentions goes to the core of each party’s view on immigration.

Republicans favor tough enforcement of immigration laws and have little interest in easing them if Democrats refuse to fund the Mexican border wall. Democrats despise the proposed wall and, in return for border security funds, want to curb what they see as unnecessarily harsh enforcement by ICE.

People involved in the talks say Democrats have proposed limiting the number of immigrants here illegally who are caught inside the U.S. — not at the border — that the agency can detain. Republicans say they don’t want that cap to apply to immigrants caught committing crimes, but Democrats do.

In a series of tweets about the issue, Trump used the dispute to cast Democrats as soft on criminals. He charged in one tweet: “The Border Committee Democrats are behaving, all of a sudden, irrationally. Not only are they unwilling to give dollars for the obviously needed Wall (they overrode recommendations of Border Patrol experts), but they don’t even want to take muderers into custody! What’s going on?”

If you do one thing

If you do one thing: A community dance will feature music by the Shadows Band from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Snake River Elks Lodge, 412 E. 200 S., Jerome. Admission is $5.

FILE - In this Oct. 23, 2018, file phoo, Boston Red Sox's Craig Kimbrel throws during the ninth inning of Game 1 of the World Series baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Boston. Kimbrel, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Dallas Keuchel will not be around when the bat and ball bags are opened at spring training throughout Florida and Arizona this week. They are among the dozens of free agents still looking for jobs. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

Charter schools: Don't compare us to regular schools

TWIN FALLS — Magic Valley charter school leaders have mixed responses to a new report that delves into Idaho’s public charter schools.

“Charter School Performance in Idaho 2019,” by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, looks at demographics and academic outcomes among charter schools and how they compare with traditional school districts.

The authors presented study results last week to the state’s House and Senate education committees, Idaho Education News reported, and have done similar reports for many other U.S. states.

Idaho’s public charter schools are similar in many categories to traditional schools, the report says, but charter schools tend to have a lower poverty rate among students, fewer students in minority groups or who have special needs, and 41 percent have significantly better academic progress in reading and math than their traditional counterparts. But the study raised concerns about academic performance among students enrolled in online public charter schools.

Results in the report were “kind of refreshing,” said Jeff Klamm, principal at North Valley Academy in Gooding.

The report notes many instances where student performance is similar between charter schools and traditional schools, Klamm said. That’s mind blowing, he said, considering charter schools receive less state funding, and can’t go to voters for a levy or bond.

It’s tough and not necessarily fair to compare charter schools with traditional schools — or even charter schools with one another, said Gary Moon, administrator at Xavier Charter School in Twin Falls. And Christine Ivie, superintendent of Heritage Academy in Jerome, said in an email to the Times-News she has concerns about the report, including that an Associated Press story that implies online charter schools and some “low performing” charter schools are dragging down Idaho’s overall charter school performance.

Public charter schools — which don’t charge tuition and are open to all students — provide options for families and have the flexibility to offer innovative programs. Once prospective students turn in applications, openings at each school are filled through a lottery system.

South-central Idaho is home to four public charter schools: Xavier Charter School, Heritage Academy, North Valley Academy and Syringa Mountain School in Hailey.

An Idaho law was enacted in 1998 allowed public charter schools. Since then, more than 50 have opened across the Gem State.

“Throughout the years, there have been controversies over charter schools,” the report states. “Supporters praise the autonomy that charter schools enjoy in adapting school designs to meet the needs of students, especially those in communities with historically low school quality. Opponents complain that charter schools take students and resources from district schools and further strain existing public schools’ ability to improve.”

Tamara Baysinger, executive director of the Idaho Public Charter School Commission, wasn’t available to comment on the report.

Researchers looked at data — with help from Idaho’s Office of the State Board of Education — from the 2014-17 school years. The study looks primarily at academic growth among students — particularly, over one-year time periods. Gains and losses in academic performance are measured using days of learning.

In total, 41 percent of Idaho charter schools had significantly better student performance in reading than traditional public schools, the report states. The same percentage is true for math. That’s a higher than the national average — 25 percent in reading and 29 percent in math.

But on the flip side, 41 percent of charter schools “do not differ significantly from the traditional public school option” in reading and 39 percent in math. And 17 percent of charter schools have reading performance “significantly weaker” than traditional public schools and 20 percent do in math.

As for demographics, Idaho’s charter schools had a 19 percent rate of students living in poverty — lower than 27 percent in traditional public schools — during the 2016-17 school year.

Overall, the student body at charter schools is made up of 1 percent English language learners (compared with 5 percent in traditional public schools), 9 percent special education (compared with 11 percent), 81 percent white students (compared with 76 percent), 1 percent black students (same as traditional schools), 9 percent Hispanic students (compared with 16 percent) and 4 percent American Indian students (compared with 1 percent).

It’s so hard to compare charter schools with traditional schools, Moon said, since charter schools have a narrower scope of focus. Xavier focuses on its classical model of education and fine arts, and doesn’t offer programs like woodshop or agriculture education.

“Traditional public schools are trying to meet a lot of needs at one time,” Moon said.

The report notes charter schools tend to perform a little better on standardized tests, Moon said, but added it’s hard to make comparisons. It’s also unfair to compare test scores even among charter schools, he said, since some campuses are designed specifically to reach at-risk students.

Xavier, which opened in 2007, has about 700 students in kindergarten through 12th grades. As of October, Xavier had 361 children on a waiting list.

Xavier offers school busing within Twin Falls to get as broad of demographics as possible, Moon said. It also has a lot of students from neighboring communities.

At Xavier, 28 percent of students receive free or reduced-price school lunches — lower than the Twin Falls School District’s campuses, which range from about 30-90 percent.

But Moon said he thinks the number of students at Xavier who could qualify for subsidized lunches is actually higher than 28 percent. “I honestly believe it would be higher than that if everyone filled out the form.”

Xavier has 8.6 percent of its student body in special education and 14.5 percent of its students are in minority groups (of those, 11 percent are Hispanic).

Under a new accountability system, the Idaho State Department of Education released a few lists this fall of schools in different categories, recognizing some for measures of success and flagging others as needing help.

This is the first time the state has used the new accountability system to gauge how public schools are doing. It’s a requirement for states to have an accountability system under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015.

Xavier was a goal maker in English/language arts and math, and North Valley Academy was for graduation rate.

Of seven local schools labeled as “Comprehensive Support and Improvement Underperforming (CSI Up),” Heritage Academy was included. The school has a large percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged, offers free breakfast and lunch for all students, and school busing.

Heritage Academy was also named an “additional targeted support and improvement” school for economically disadvantaged, Hispanic and white students. Syringa Mountain School received the same designation for economically disadvantaged students.

At North Valley Academy, Klamm said he was pleased the report highlighted the successes of rural charter schools.

“As a rural charter school, it feels like you’re not always achieving success,” he said. But during winter benchmark testing at North Valley Academy, he said, students grew in their academic performance in reading and math.

North Valley Academy, which opened in 2008, has more than 230 students in kindergarten through 12th grades.

As for demographics, “I think for the most part, we’re pretty similar” to traditional schools, Klamm said, but thinks North Valley probably doesn’t have quite as many Hispanic students as neighboring schools.

More than 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, but that number doesn’t tell the full story, he said. A lot of parents who may qualify based on income don’t fill out paperwork “because they don’t want that label.”

Company appeals developer’s reimbursement before City Council

TWIN FALLS — The City Council will be tasked Monday to weigh in on a dispute between a city commission and two developers over who should pay for a pressurized irrigation system.

A homebuilder is appealing the Improvement Reimbursement Commission’s decision to reimburse another developer for constructing a pressurized irrigation system. The city of Twin Falls has agreed to reimburse developers for certain improvements that benefit subsequent developers.

In November, Gerald Martens requested reimbursement from the city for improvements he’d made at the Broadmoor Subdivision. The commission decided Martens was eligible to receive $35,764 for a pressurized irrigation system that benefits 118 lots purchased by Jade Development. The northern part of the 249-lot subdivision is still owned by Martens, who was the initial developer for the entire subdivision.

But Jade Development appealed the commission’s decision, saying Martens agreed to install the utilities at his sole expense.

“In 2015, Mr. Martens entered into a private contract under which he agreed to install, at his sole cost, certain improvements for Jade’s benefit, including but not limited to pressurized irrigation,” Jade Development’s attorney, Lynnette M. Davis, said in a letter to the city. “Accordingly, Mr. Martens is not entitled to reimbursement from Jade, and Jade is not obligated to reimburse Mr. Martens. Notwithstanding the forgoing, Jade does not expect the City Council to interpret and/or enforce the private agreement — that will be done by a court of law.”

The letter asks the City Council to vacate the commissions’ decision until the dispute between developers is resolved, likely through a lawsuit.

Jade Development has also argued that Martens did not apply for reimbursement within the required 90-day deadline from the time the system was accepted by the city, City Attorney Shayne Nope said.

“The acceptance letter was formally issued the day of the commission hearing of the application,” Nope said. “Generally speaking, they allege that the Improvement Reimbursement Commission did not follow the resolution in making their decision.”

In response, Martens’ attorney, Tara Martens Miller, wrote that Jade is attempting to intimidate the city by saying it will be “forced” to sue the city.

“Jade continues its unreasonable battle — in direct contravention of its promises of record — to receive the development of its subdivision on the shoulders of the initial developer — precisely what the Resolution’s purpose is to avoid,” Miller wrote. “If the Council were to overturn the Commission’s determination (or delay its Decision pending years of litigation), an atmosphere would be created encouraging inappropriate and hasty threats of litigation to avoid fair allocation as amongst developers and discourage the good-faith efforts and consideration by the volunteer Commission.”

The City Council will be tasked with deciding whether the Commission followed the 2017 resolution, and if the amount to be reimbursed complied with the resolution, Nope said.

The City Council meets at 5 p.m. Monday in City Hall, 203 Main Ave. E. Also at the meeting, the Council will hear a presentation by the Twin Falls School District regarding its pursuit of a renewal and slight increase of the supplemental levy.